As climate change enters the forefront of more and more American minds, no doubt thanks to increasingly extreme weather patterns, sustainability — both environmental and economic — is becoming a key focus for farmers in Kansas.
While it doesn’t seem like a traditional crop on U.S. soil, one increasingly popular possibility for sustainable agriculture is growing industrial hemp.
Hemp is a lesser-known product harvested from the cannabis plant, the same plant that marijuana is derived from. Hemp and marijuana are technically grown from distinct strains of the cannabis plant, with hemp primarily used for paper, textiles, plastics and biofuel, and marijuana known mostly as a drug.
Rick Trojan, vice president of the Hemp Industries Association and board member of the Vote Hemp advocacy organization, said hemp has a long, unknown history as a crop in the United States, dating back to colonial times.
“In the very first colonies that were established, it was actually mandatory to grow hemp,” Trojan said. “This was true in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; also in Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Maryland and Virginia.”
Hemp was one of the crops considered to be a “cash crop” by colonists, along with tobacco, flax and wheat.
Trojan said major proponents and growers of industrial hemp included founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He also said the managers of Washington’s Mount Vernon estate even grew hemp on the land to honor the tradition last year, and they plan to do it again this year.
“In the late 1800s, the state of Kansas was actually a pretty major producer of hemp crop,” Trojan said. “During the Civil War, I believe around 1865, Kansas was the number one state in production of hemp.”
Later on, during the 1930s, Trojan said there was legislation passed where many states prohibited industrial hemp due to multiple anti-cannabis activist groups. During World War II, it came back in the spotlight for a short period to aid in the war effort with its various industrial-level uses.
In the 1970s, Trojan said hemp again had opposition because there was no distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp, and therefore it was federally controlled and treated like an illegal drug.
In 2012, Colorado legalized the cultivation of hemp within the state. Later, under the Federal Farm Bill of 2014, more states began to grow it as well, Trojan said.
“In 2015, 3,933 acres were cultivated in the United States,” Trojan said. “In 2016, that grew to 9,770 acres, and in 2017, there was a big jump to 25,713 acres, more than half of which was produced in Colorado. And then last year, evidence shows that about 77,000 acres of hemp were cultivated in the United States.”
In 2018, the Kansas state senate passed SB 263, a bill which enacted the Alternative Crop Research Act and allowed the Kansas Department of Agriculture to then distribute licenses for Kansas farmers to cultivate hemp for both commercial and research uses.
Hemp today has increased in popularity due to its observed beneficial effects. It not only helps enrich the soil it is grown in, but it can be used as an ingredient in biodegradable alternatives to oil-based products, such as plastic.
“The root systems spread apart and break the soil up, which increases oxygenation [and] increases the biodiversity of the soil,” said Kelly Rippel, president of the Planted Association of Kansas and vice president and co-founder of Kansans for Hemp. “It essentially regenerates the soil just by growing. But if you combine regenerative agriculture principles — a series of principles for more sustainable farming — such as soil no-till and cover crops, know that it just increases all of those exponentially.”
Christie Lunsford, CEO of the Hemp Biz Conference, said the roots of hemp also have a phytoremediation aspect to them, meaning that hemp can be used to remove contaminants from soil.
“Hemp was planted at Chernobyl,” Lunsford said, referring to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986. “It was planted at Chernobyl to remove toxins from the soil.”
All parts of the plant can be used to create hemp oil, while the seeds, stalks and leaves all have more specialized, niche uses.
The stem has fiber used to create textiles — rope, canvas, upholstery — and a significant product here in Kansas known as hempcrete.
Hempcrete is a replacement for concrete made by mixing hemp with limestone, which could allow future buildings and sidewalks to be made in a more environmentally friendly way.
“The fact that Kansas is very rich in limestone, and we have quarries, it’s crucial for making hempcrete,” Rippel said.
The seeds of hemp are useful as well. They can be cold-pressed into oil and used as an alternative for the oil used in paints, cars, wood finishings, plastics and solvents.
“As far as other sustainability, instead of having oil paints and oil products with chemicals, we could go back to using hemp oil,” Lunsford said.
The oil can also be used in food to assist in nutrition; many proponents of hemp consider it a “superfood.”
Leaves can be eaten raw, used as additives in other foods and even used to create various cosmetic and body care products.
Hemp’s proponents say it is valuable for more than its environmental friendliness; it also doesn’t require as much water, pesticides and herbicides as other traditional crops like soybeans, corn and wheat.
The money saved from not using as much water and other resources can go directly back to the farmer, Rippel said, so they won’t be spending as much money directly on the crop.
Despite the opportunities hemp could provide for Kansas and the U.S. as a whole, there are various challenges it will ultimately face before it becomes a mainstream cash crop.
Besides the obvious issues related to the cannabis plant and the legalization of marijuana, one challenge Rippel says hemp faces is simple infrastructure. There is little infrastructure in place for efficient use of hemp fibers to create textiles.
“The overall sustainability is going to come from the re-engagement and the reintroduction of the supply chain,” Rippel said. “It’s all about collaboration. That’s how the sustainability is going to work is through sharing best practices and engaging with partners in it.”
Lunsford shared similar sentiments about the infrastructure challenges.
“There is a lack of infrastructure because we abandoned our farming community and we abandoned our manufacturing community,” Lunsford said.
These challenges don’t seem to stall the excitement behind hemp in Kansas for some, though.
Jason Griffin, director of the John C. Pair Horticultural Center in Haysville, Kansas, said he gets questions about industrial hemp all the time.
“Right now, my phone is ringing every day — 15 phone calls this week on industrial hemp, with countless emails,” Hofmeier said. “There’s a lot of excitement, and I am advising anybody interested in getting into it, to go in with their eyes wide open.”